History: Can We Trust the Narrative?

by Tamika Thompson

We study past events, write about them, wrestle with the material and then call it history. We build college courses around it — American history, medieval European history — and construct month-long celebrations of it — Black History Month, Women’s History Month.

But what is history, really? Who decides what history is? Which parts of the story are included and which parts are left out of the account? Can we trust the narrative?

Recent guests on our show and guest bloggers on our site have confronted the notion of an absolute history.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed, for example, explains that history often changes as popular sentiment and the tenor of the times change.

“There was a time when Blacks weren’t thought of as human beings, and you can tell it in the history. You can read it in the way historians wrote, as if they’re writing about people who are sub-human,” Gordon-Reed says. “As attitudes changed, people began to ask new questions of the material.”

It’s worth noting that the African American experience has often been chronicled by whites. Do such accounts, in effect, glorify the hunter at the lions’ expense?

Guest blogger Alan Kurtz, who questions whether whites are entitled to write Black history, writes:

“It’s worth noting that the African American experience has often been chronicled by whites. Do such accounts, in effect, glorify the hunter at the lions’ expense?”

And guest blogger Judy Lubin, who explores what she calls the “whitewashing” of American history, writes:

“In recent months, we have been reminded that American history is all too often the subject of revisionist interpretations that whitewash the nation’s past to score political points. These insults on our historical consciousness are far too easy to cite.”

What do you think? Check out related video from our show and blog posts on our site, and then weigh in.

Can we trust history as we know it? And how do we preserve the integrity of events from our collective past? Share your thoughts below.

Video:

Related Videos

Blog Posts

Last modified: March 5, 2012 at 8:24 pm